Vatican should talk to China — but not at any price

Any dialogue with Beijing must include a robust focus on human rights and a fierce defense of religious freedom and human dignity

Benedict Rogers

Updated: October 01, 2021 09:35 AM GMT

A demonstrator from the Uyghur community waves a flag during a protest near Belgium's parliament in Brussels on July 8 as Belgian MPs debated the 'serious risk of genocide' against China's Uyghurs. (Photo: AFP)

Pope Francis' commitment to continued dialogue with China, expressed in an interview broadcast on Sept. 1, is in many ways right and admirable. The spirit of dialogue, of constant striving to seek reconciliation and peace, no matter how challenging and arduous the path, is and always has been part of the spirit of the Catholic Church.

When Pope Francis says that China is not easy, but I am convinced that we should not give up dialogue. You can be deceived in dialogue, you can make mistakes, all that ... but it is the way. Closed-mindedness is never the way, I wholeheartedly agree. I never want to be closed-minded. That is the characteristic of our interlocutors in the Beijing regime and their appeasers.

The question for me is never whether to try to talk with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. A government — however brutal, repressive, aggressive and criminal in its conduct — that rules 1.4 billion people and is one of the world's two major economic, political and military powers is not one we can simply ignore or isolate. Even in the worst days of the Cold War, after all, we still talked to the Soviet Union.

The question is not whether to talk but about the nature of the dialogue. What are the topics of conversation? What are the objectives? And on whose terms is the dialogue held?

Dialogue for the sake of conversation serves no ethical, moral or practical purpose. Dialogue that is one way, or in which we are silent about our grave concerns about injustice, or where we end up kowtowing, appeasing or unwittingly complicit with evil, is immoral.

So, it depends on what kind of dialogue we seek. It also depends on what timeframe is envisaged.

My biggest concern about the Vatican's approach to the Chinese regime so far is that it appears to have secured the pope's silence, at least in public, on some of the gravest injustices of our time

It would be foolhardy to impose some artificial dates, but at the same time if it is left perpetually open-ended, then the chances are it's a propaganda coup for Beijing and an immoral sellout for Rome. Those involved in shaping the dialogue need to ask themselves: what are the red lines and the deadlines?

Let's come back to the heart of the issue: dialogue about what, with whom and on what terms?

My biggest concern about the Vatican's approach to the Chinese regime so far is that it appears to have secured the pope's silence, at least in public, on some of the gravest injustices of our time.

Almost every Sunday when Pope Francis prays the Angelus from his window overlooking St Peter's Square, he speaks about and prays for at least one area of conflict, injustice, persecution and repression in the world or another — the Middle East, the Rohingya, Yemen — and rightly so.

Yet not once has he mentioned the Uyghurs, arguably facing the world's most contemporary genocide, or the dramatic dismantling of Hong Kong's freedoms, or Tibet, or the persecution of Falun Gong and the barbaric practice of forced organ harvesting, found by an independent tribunal two years ago to be crimes against humanity, or the intense persecution of Christians in China, the most severe crackdown on the faith since the Cultural Revolution.

Apart from a very brief, cursory reference to the Uyghurs in his beautiful book Let Us Dream, Pope Francis has not mentioned the mass atrocities in China's Xinjiang region — a million — perhaps three million — Uyghurs in concentration camps, many more subjected to slave labor, forced sterilization, forced abortions, sexual violence and religious persecution. And Rome stays silent?

The previous and current US administrations, as well as the parliaments of the United Kingdom, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Belgium and Lithuania, have called it a genocide, yet the pope says nothing. How come?

In contrast to all his predecessors, Pope Francis has not met the Dalai Lama. He reportedly declined a request by Hong Kong's courageous and outspoken 89-year-old bishop emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen, for a half-hour meeting on his last visit to Rome. And to my knowledge he has not yet met any Uyghurs.

If dialogue with the regime in Beijing is to have any value, it must be about these grave concerns: genocide, crimes against humanity, religious freedom and human dignity. If the price for discussing these issues behind closed doors is silence on the part of the Holy Father in public, in my view that's too high a price, especially if the timeframe is open-ended.

For a limited period, public silence may be acceptable if it is to allow for behind-the-scenes robust dialogue to take effect. But that cannot be indefinite, for we know from decades of experience that quiet private diplomacy with the Chinese regime by itself yields no results.

Of equal importance, dialogue with the regime should not preclude dialogue with the peoples of China. If the Vatican's dialogue with the CCP is to be well informed, the pope should at the same time meet with representatives of those the CCP is persecuting so brutally: starting with the Dalai Lama, Cardinal Zen and a Uyghur delegation, and continuing to regular meetings with exiled Chinese Christians, Tibetans, Uyghurs and Hong Kongers. If Beijing says the price for continued dialogue is exclusivity, then again, that's too high a price.

Being prepared to talk with an oppressor is a worthy quality. But being prepared to walk away for the right reasons at the right time must also be part of the equation

I love Pope Francis and deeply appreciate his emphasis on mercy that has been such a prevailing theme in his papacy. But his expressed admiration for Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, one of the architects of Rome's Ostpolitik approach to the Soviet Union and a pioneer of engagement with Beijing, is alarming.

A better example of dialogue, I would venture to suggest, would be that of Pope St. John Paul II's approach to the Soviets, which, combined with that of US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, did more to end the Cold War and bring freedom and human dignity to the peoples of Eastern Europe than anything Ostpolitik ever achieved.

They turbocharged the Helsinki Process approach established in 1975, which put human rights and security as twin priorities at the very center of dialogue, coupled with a position of strength morally, militarily and diplomatically.

If there's to be any continued dialogue with Beijing — which I hope there will be — it must be with a robust focus on human rights, a fierce defense of religious freedom and human dignity, a moral outrage at mass atrocities, a constant voice of protest at the closure of one of Asia's freest societies, Hong Kong, and an insistence that talks, worthwhile though they may be, cannot come at any price and must not be drawn out in perpetuity without any meaningful results.

Being prepared to talk with an oppressor is a worthy quality. But being prepared to walk away for the right reasons at the right time must also be part of the equation. And for the Church, justice, human rights and human dignity must always trump mere dialogue. Dialogue between the Church and China must be rooted in the example of Moses saying to Pharaoh, Let my people go, not Neville Chamberlain's peace for our time declaration after meeting Adolf Hitler.

* Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, and his faith journey is told in his book From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church (Gracewing, 2015). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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